For One, Familiarity Breeds Camaraderie · 17 September 2003

By Patricia Nelson Limerick, Special to the News--Rocky Mountain News--09/18/03

For close to a quarter century, I was an archetypal academic liberal. All of my friends were Democrats. I did my thinking and writing in a community of the politically like-minded.

I begin with this admission because it adds drama to the twist that this confession is about to take. If Gov. Bill Owens, Sen. John Andrews or any of the others who think all professors are intolerant of conservative opinion happen to be reading this, please keep reading. Don't stop here. We're about to get to the interesting part.

In 2003, I am in the company of Republicans as often as I am in the company of Democrats. A good share - maybe half - of my best friends are Republicans. I do my thinking and writing in a community of people who hold a range of opinions that can - and sometimes do - make my head spin. Unless I have misunderstood the concept, my day-to-day life realizes the dream of the university as a place where a wide range of perspectives are expressed, explored and tolerated.

Am I typical? Well, no, probably not. Most human beings and academics (who, contrary to some popular perceptions, are indeed human beings) show a proclivity for clustering with those who seem to them familiar and safe. When academics hire other academics, they respond warmly to candidates who "fit" with the department and who match the preconceptions and assumptions of the hirers.

This is not however the exclusive and peculiar sin of academics. It is a pretty likely proposition that Adam and Eve, very soon after the fall, adopted similar hiring practices (who, really, would have expected them to eschew discriminatory practices and hire that non-team-playing snake?).

I am fortunate on two counts: First, by temperament or, who knows, by biochemistry, I do not do well at clustering and clumping; I get bored and restless when everyone is agreeing with everyone else; and I find a reliable and, I suppose, addictive pleasure in the adrenaline delivered to the bloodstream by crossing over into unfamiliar territory; and, second, by extreme good luck, I work in a campus unit where, ironically, the "non-clusterers" cluster. At meetings of the the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center of the American West, mechanical engineers sit next to literature scholars, archaeologists sit next to conservation biologists; and yes, conservatives sit next to liberals.

Consider one example: My organization, the Center, will soon launch a series bringing the secretaries of the interior, former and current, to Boulder. The total of those who have agreed to participate to date is this: two Democrats, five Republicans.
My original plan was to bring all of the former secretaries together on the same occasion. This proved to be a planning and scheduling mess, and psychologically over my head. In a thoroughly bipartisan agreement, Republican and Democratic secretaries felt that it would be a far better plan to bring one speaker at a time, and thus allow the audience to benefit month by month from the riches of experience each person holds.

As a historian planning this series, I never had to waste a moment on questions of political inclusion or exclusion. All of the people who have held the office of secretary of interior are significant figures in western history. The question of whose policies I prefer has no bearing on whether they deserve a respectful hearing.

Inviting and persuading these people to come to Boulder added up to a pretty demanding task. And yet it soon became, if not a labor of love, at least a labor of affection and pleasure. Indeed, everyone should envy me my phone conversations over the last months. One characteristic of secretaries of the interior is that they are, each of them, distinctive, memorable and colorful characters. I have found no one in this cohort who would make the grade as a spiritless, jargon-saturated, gray bureaucrat.
Conversations with both Republicans and Democrats have persuaded me of one thing: Being a public official is a demanding, difficult, even punishing and painful activity. After many of these conversations, I have found myself yearning for a kind of politics in which we fully and forthrightly disagree with a person's policies and principles, but we do not then assume that it is our obligation to deposit, expeditiously and irredeemably, the person holding those policies and principles into the trash-heap of history. Disapproving of the policy without damning and abhorring the policymaker may be an act of agility and grace beyond the reach of most mortals, but I still believe it is a maneuver well worth practicing, even if our performance of it cannot be perfect.
In my bipartisan phone-chatting, I have been surprised by the generosity and warmth of remarks made by historical opponents in tribute to each other. I cannot betray comments made in confidence, but I can say that I have heard private expressions of respect for opponents that I would never have predicted, nor would most people who have followed disputes over natural-resource policy in the Department of the Interior.

After this series of memorable and moving phone conversations, I am eager to get this series of public programs under way. And there is no denying that I am eager to see how this series - unmistakably bipartisan, hosted by a university program, giving free expression to a breathtaking range of political opinion - will register (or alas, not register) in the minds of those who are convinced that a liberal orthodoxy rules today's campuses.

If a liberal orthodoxy rules the empire of the university, and I am a subject of that empire, then why in heaven's name did I spend an equal amount of time plaguing Republicans and Democrats with my letters, e-mails and voice-mails, begging them to invest their valuable time in this project?

We begin on the evening of Sept. 24 with former Secretary Stewart Udall, who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In the course of the academic year, we will have visits from two Nixon administration figures: Walter Hickel and John Whitaker (Whitaker was under secretary to Rogers Morton, who died in 1979); James Watt from the Reagan administration; Manuel Lujan from the first Bush administration; and Bruce Babbitt from the Clinton administration. The current secretary, Gale Norton, has agreed to complete the series with a talk in the summer or fall, responding to our findings from the visits of her predecessors. We are still hoping that Secretaries Donald Hodel, William Clark and Cecil Andrus will be able to join the series.

I am grateful to all the speakers who have agreed to come to Boulder to shed light on this relationship, and (if Owens and Andrews are still reading, and even if they are not) it is a matter of public record that I am equally grateful to both the Republicans and the Democrats.

This is a great series, but it is only one example among many of the difference between the two phases of my academic life: Phase One, in which I lived and worked in a kind of political apartheid, and Phase Two, in which Republicans, once the unknown "exotic other," are my companions and, often enough, my guides and advisers.

I suppose it is only honest to admit that my voting habits have not changed, despite the considerable difference between my life in Phase One and Phase Two. It is also only honest to admit that Phase One was a lot more comfortable and restful. But a life combining the chance to speak at length with Stewart Udall and with James Watt is a life of such adventure that it is hard for me to believe that I ever chose ease over adrenaline.